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House passes school-choice funding bill on roll-call vote

State House Bureau

January 03. 2018 11:57PM

CONCORD — The state House of Representatives on Wednesday approved a Senate-passed school-choice bill endorsed by Gov. Chris Sununu in a 184-162 roll call vote.

SB 193 would offer parents state-funded scholarships to send their children to private schools, including religious schools, or to pay for home schooling.

“This is the first step in ensuring that New Hampshire’s education system continues to be on the forefront of innovation, closing the opportunity gap and opening pathways like never before, regardless of economic status,” Sununu said after the vote.

“I applaud the House of Representatives for reaching a compromise that puts New Hampshire families first. We will continue to champion this groundbreaking legislation and will work with members of the Senate as this bill moves through the process and reaches my desk.”

The bill now goes to the House Finance Committee, because of the money involved.

Ultimately, the Senate will have to agree to many changes in the bill made by the House, or the two chambers will have to agree on a common version of the bill before it goes to Sununu for his signature.

SB 193 had been one of the most heavily lobbied measures throughout 2017, with an aggressive public-relations campaign by both sides. If signed into law, it would create one of the most ambitious school-choice programs in the country.

The New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office on Dec. 28 sent a one-sentence email to the Speaker of the House stating that the attorney general believes SB 193 is constitutional.

The state chapter of the ACLU followed that up on Tuesday with a statement claiming the law “directly violates the N.H. Constitution and N.H. Supreme Court precedent restricting the use of public funds for religious schools.”

The “Education Freedom Savings Accounts” authorized under the bill would enable parents who work with an approved scholarship organization to receive 95 percent of the per-pupil state grant of $3,636 to be used for tuition, transportation or other costs at a school of the family’s choice, or to pay for home-schooling supplies.

Supporters of the bill argued that SB 193 would provide a path for lower-income and working-class families to find the best education for their children, while protecting public school districts from any loss in state funding greater than one quarter of one percent.

“I do not believe there is going to be a mass exodus from our public school system,” said Rep. Terry Wolf, R-Bedford, vice chair of the Education Committee. “It creates an option.”

Opponents maintained that limited tax dollars currently available for schools should not be redirected to private schools, which can discriminate in admissions.

“We believe that the state should not fund a private schooling choice through public tax dollars,” said Mel Myler, D-Contoocook, for the minority.

Lead-paint protections

The House also approved a Senate-passed bill creating new protections for children against lead paint poisoning.

SB 247 enjoyed bipartisan support and was endorsed by Sununu at a press conference on Tuesday, with leading lawmakers from both parties on hand.

The bill cleared the House, 266-87.

It calls for universal testing (with a parental opt-out), mandatory building inspection programs and $6 million in state-backed loans for lead-hazard remediation in rental properties, child-care centers and single-family homes over the next two fiscal years.

The Senate version of the bill called for state-funded grants, not loans, for remediation, so the House-passed version will have to be accepted by the Senate, which appears likely.

The New Hampshire Board of Realtors issued a statement urging the Senate to reconsider the grant option in order to avoid increasing already high housing costs.

“Realtors hope the Senate will take a hard look at some of the details of the bill to ensure the result is not higher rents,” said N.H. Realtors President Gerry O’Connell.

Other bills acted on Wednesday include:

•HB 471, which would have required the state to collect statistics on abortions performed at New Hampshire hospitals, failed 165-189;

•HB 399, restricting the use of pesticides in playgrounds, sports fields, school yards and camps, failed 189-143;

•HB 476, restoring the duties of Registers Of Probate, passed 198-146;

•HB 656, regarding legalization of marijuana, was moved to next week.

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